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Forty-Three Percent: On Poems and Numbers


Have you ever gone through something so unbelievable you think you might be gaslighting yourself? That somehow your memory is assembling things that can’t be true?

Much of my art and writing has been influenced by my time living in the neighborhood of South Boston, Massachusetts. Although I wasn’t truly born and raised there, I was fortunate enough to live in the neighborhood when it was still “Southie” and I was adopted as a local. My friend and colleague, one Johnny J. Blockbuster, claims I have honorary “local” status even though it’s never been ruled on in a court of law.

In my last book, “OxyContin For Breakfast,” many of the poems were inspired by an intense personal connection to the opioid epidemic as informed by my time living there. I have long felt—based on my extensive travels around the United States as well as my time in South Boston—that Southie was hit hardest and worse than most. In the intervening years, the plague spread into the Boston suburbs and through places in the South.

But at this point, we all seem to know someone personally who has been rocked by the disease of addiction in direct connection to opioids. Unfortunately, much has been done purposely to obscure the direct impact Purdue Pharma had on creating this epidemic.

At first, the epidemic was blamed on poor people, addicts, and derelicts. Then it was blamed on the heroin people turned to when they couldn’t afford OxyContin any longer. Now it’s often blamed on Fentanyl. But there should be little doubt in anyone’s mind that Purdue Pharma and OxyContin carry the burden of blame.

This past week, those of us who feel our reminiscing as Veterans of the War on Drugs might be self-gaslighting were dismayed to see a new article in The American Journal of Public Health. The study states that 43% of Americans now know someone who has died of a drug overdose.

Rates of exposure were significantly higher in New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont).

Why were we dismayed to learn we were right all along? Wouldn’t it be better if we somehow made up this crazy tragedy? I’d rather be fooling myself.

When my last book “OxyContin for Breakfast” came out, one of my friends called to say he got his new copy. He said, “I saw the name Brian was included in the dedication page. I hope that Brian is me.” He delivered the line with a laugh.

I said, “Those people are all dead. Those are people I knew personally we lost in the struggle.”  

43 percent and rising. As the inspiration for the poem “Jimmy Shoes” from my new book “The Simple Art of Murder” used to say, “If your family is still alive, call them and tell them you love them.”

I was doing a reading and Q&A last year, and someone asked, “What’s up with all the numbering in your poems?”

I’m not sure what I answered. It might have been something about being inspired by drug addicts and alcoholics who always count drinks; That the relationship to time and numbers is different when you measure existence in consumption.

I think it’s just normal to count parts of a poem like chapters. Especially the long poems I’m known for at this point.

But in my new book, the poem “One Thousand & One” details the counting we all did as kids, measuring time between lightning strikes and thunder. This is contrasted against counting the dead as overdose deaths climb. In the poem, the notion of lightning striking the steepled skyscrapers of Boston was like seeing the blast from hypodermics as people overdosed on cooked-up opioids.

One of the central ideas of my new book, “The Simple Art of Murder,” is that great artists, writers, and poets have addressed all sorts of major issues, including gun violence, with energy, strength, and skill. But while this has created many great works of art and literature, it hasn’t done much to solve the problem.

I feel the same about numbers. 43 is a number you’d think could change the world. Today, I’m not sure it will.

A better poet than me might write “An Obituary for The Number 43.” Because, the way things are going, we will kill that number soon. We will move far past it, bury it, and forget it.

But today, for a while, I remembered.


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